SHUTDOWN: The Inherent Tension Between Responsive & Responsible Governing

The US federal government is currently “closed” because the Democratic and Republican parties cannot agree to what seems to be a Pareto optimal (i.e., unanimously preferred) policy (namely, the government being “open”).

I will dispense with current events and turn immediately to the question of “why?”  This shutdown is arguably different than the most recent (1995-96) one.  In the previous shutdown, a Republican controlled Congress attached policy prescriptions to measures keeping the government open (known as continuing resolutions, or “CRs”).

That sounds similar to this situation…but remember, in 1995 the GOP had not controlled both chambers of Congress for FORTY YEARS.  (Interestingly, Bill Clinton was arguably slightly more popular (in terms of job approval margin) when he faced the shutdown than Barack Obama is now.)  So, in a sense, the stance they took could be argued to be “a new one” with respect to the status quo policies.

Now, of course, the GOP’s focus is on a policy that has most definitely been debated and redebated repeatedly over the past 3 years: health care.

So, why the impasse?  Well, in game theory, there’s a classic result (really, family of results) known as the “folk theorem.”  This result states that cooperative (Pareto optimal) outcomes can be sustained, even in spite of players’ short-run incentives to shirk/defect/fight, so long as the players expect the game to “continue for long enough.”[1]

The basic (very loose) intuition behind the folk theorem is that, if two players are facing each other in the same game repeatedly (i.e., “for long enough”), “defecting/selfish play” by one player can lead to “defecting/selfish play” by the other in future periods/iterations of the game.  Thus, this specter of punishment of today’s poor behavior deters such behavior in pursuit of higher sustained cooperative payoffs in future iterations of the game. The political salience of this possibility in the present conflagration is brought out by this article. In a nutshell, Speaker Boehner arguably might worry that effecting a compromise will lead to his ouster as Speaker of the House. But this leads to the question of why members of either party would risk overturning normal order and replacing a Speaker for enabling a seemingly obvious, common-sense, and efficient (if stop-gap) compromise.

A key feature of today’s electoral environment—especially for members representing “tea party” (i.e., very conservative) and “tree hugger” (i.e., very liberal) districts—is a high level of uncertainty—not about the general election, but the primary election.  In particular, the internal politics of both parties, combined with both demographic (immigration/aging) and technological (facebook/cell phones/twitter) changes has arguably made things like microtargeting possible and highly potent in terms of mounting a “challenge from the extremes” in primary elections—especially in ideologically homogeneous districts.

In some ways, such changes are “good”: to the degree that voters’ wishes should be respected, these changes potentially reduce the stagnation attributed historically to regularities such as the “incumbency advantage.”

On the other hand, such changes arguably increase the incentive for (reelection-seeking) members to “dig their heels in” as a bulwark against potential challengers from the extreme of their in the upcoming election.  To think about this concretely for a second, note that both Democrats and Republicans have been against a “clean CR” (one that would simply extend funding at the present (sequestered) levels.[2]

I will not delve into the details of this opposition too much, but simply consider this vote and this vote—in both, the extreme liberals and conservatives of the House essentially voted “in protest” of what was about to happen.  This “(ideological) ends against the (ideological) middle” type of conflict is rare in Congress.  That’s because, from a simple “yea/nay vote on a bill” perspective, it doesn’t really make sense: one of the “ends” should be happy about the (either left or right) direction embodied in the bill in question.

But here—the conflict is not about the policy, it’s about the appearance of supporting the policy as opposed to a hypothetical counterfactual.  The liberals against a clean CR (at least early on) wanted to make it clear that they favored expanding funding back to the pre-sequestration levels.  The conservatives against a clean CR wanted to make it clear that they were against Obama the Affordable Care Act.

So, in this situation, as in all good social science: there’s a pro, a con, and a lot of gray.[3]

On the one hand, members are arguably very attentive to their constituents. YAY!

On the other hand, members are unsure about how constituents will interpret their actions. BOO!

The gray area comes about because, it is not clear to me that the voters are actually clear on what THEY want either.  The Affordable Care Act polls very badly.  I doubt that it will do so in five years. But, to be fair, this is a democracy.  The question, then, is do we want Congress to make long-lived policy choices based on what “we want them to do now,” or on what “we, looking back in 20 years, will want them to have done now”?

That’s paternalism, of course, though arguably in a slightly subtle guise.  But, if you say you’ve never worried about your short-term impulses and tried to constrain yourself, then I say, you should. When you “worry about short-term behavior,” this is equivalent to worrying about the impact of revisiting/second-guessing “normal” decisions on a regular basis.

The problem in this situation, then, is that we are (at least in certain districts, and arguably everywhere but to different extents) an electorate that allows itself to constantly reconsider “what has my representative done for me lately?”  Keeping your representative “responsive” can provide strong incentives to pander and/or “act tough/sincere/ideologically pure.”



[1] Folk theorems rely on something known as “the discount parameter,” which indicates how much one values “rewards received tomorrow” relative to “rewards today.”  In other words, a higher discount factor means one is more patient. The interpretation of the discount parameter in practice is a bit ambiguous, but one positive determinant of its value in this context is the likelihood that the player in question will be involved in the interaction in question (i.e., policymaking) again in the future.  Thus, higher certainty of reelection for any GOP member of the House implies that this member’s discount parameter should be higher, ceteris paribus.

[2] Remember the sequester?  Remember the fiscal cliff?  Ahh, we were so innocent. Turns out that was just a “fiscal step.”

[3] In much good social science, there’s also a con man.

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